Page:Weird Tales volume 31 number 02.djvu/50

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.

travelers of the wastelands. Many of them owned birth-names unknown to their immediate companions, but the monster cat never failed in selecting their rightful and given appellation as it stalked them down. Once a man dying of inch-wide furrows clawed the length of his spine swore the giant beast had mocked him as he fled, reminding him that it had devoured his father many years before. The truth that Bubaste, or Bast, was a living goddess capable of wanton death and destruction had long been impressed upon the minds of the dwellers of the neighboring kingdoms of Forthe, Livia and Ygoth, also among vagabond desert tribes whose members had been stricken by the living scourge; and throughout the land there arose a fear that swept like a tidal wave even to the far-away mountains of Fuvia. A living, slaying goddess walked the earth, and the unfortunates whose ill luck it was to encounter her died.

The mercenary remembered all he had heard of this foreign goddess in the space of a second, but being essentially human and possessed with natural impulses, Rald eyed the supple form of the woman who claimed the throne of Ceipe and reflected on the inconsistency of idols, immortals and goddesses. Not being devout, he seldom concerned himself with the future and remained happily content with the present.

"By the Seven!" he swore. "You're no panther –- unless my eyes are bewitched!"

A rosy tide suffused Queen Cene's cheeks. Whether its source was embarrassment or anger the ex-thief could not decide; for at that moment his attention was drawn to a new figure which had appeared in the entrance to the fissure in the mountain wall. There was a sudden hush among the warriors; a respectful silence fell like a fog-laden cloud, and Cene, half risen from her throne because of Rald's threatening demeanor, shrank back with a low gasp of breath that might have expressed dismay. A tall and extremely thin man, clad in the thick folds of a long, black robe which extended from neck to heel, stood in the gap's entrance. His head was absolutely bare of any hirsute growth; combined with his deep-set and gleaming eyes it resembled the bald skull of a vulture of the desert wastes. His features themselves suggested the likeness; for they were thin, bony, and sharply pointed at the chin and nostrils. He was clad as simply as a priest; apparently the flowing robe was his only garment and the thick staff he leaned upon his only ornament. Nor did he carry a visible weapon, which was indeed strange for a grown man in the lands wherein even small children carried protective daggers in their belts.

It was evident to Rald that here was a personage to respect, for he saw the warrior-women flinch when they beheld him, and the tremulous lines of fear and repulsion could be detected on the countenances of many. Ating, their former guard, stifled an outcry only by placing her own hand over her mouth.

The queen was the first of all the women to regain her poise. In an even tone she said. "You have slept long, O Throal!"

"Yes, my queen," answered the newcomer. His voice was a harsh croak, and again Rald thought of vultures. "And well, too. In my dreams many things presented themselves to me. I sometimes travel afar in my sleep, as you know. There came to me recently a vision of two strangers, mercenaries of a lost cause. I awoke. Behold–they are here!"

"We captured them beyond the waterfall, O Throal. I do not believe they intended harm or were aware of crossing